“Big girls don’t cry,” especially not aerospace engineers like myself. Despite the fact that I was in the middle of a record summer heat wave in Texas, I wore long sleeves so I’d have a convenient mechanism to wipe away the inevitable tears triggered by verbal workplace sexism. I had a freaking Bachelor’s degree in basically rocket science and yet coworkers and managers’ language built a wall of workplace sexism. The tears were my body’s natural form of release, but I knew I was expected to hold myself together. I didn’t have any other tools to defend myself against the verbal attack, so my long sleeves provided the last line of defense when this grown up woman was reduced to tears.
My voice was always the first thing to give my emotions away. When my manager would smile and sarcastically said, “I’ve got a real important project for you today” I learned to not expect the technical projects my male counterparts were assigned. My voice would shake with hurt as I confirmed what conference room he needed lunch delivered to, or what meeting I needed to take notes in. I tried to be polite, play nice, and complete assignments, but I couldn’t control feeling passed over and unfulfilled. I didn’t have the language to stand up to my manager as he described how today he wanted roast beef instead of a turkey sandwich, then with every ounce of control I’d force a “good girl” smile on my face and later retreat to the bathroom or my car to let the feelings out in tears. These gender biased assignments were not only an attack on my intelligence, but also an attack on me. I felt that I’d never be given a chance to follow my dreams because of my gender. I finally mustered up the courage to directly ask for more technical assignments, but I was told I was so good at taking notes that I was more valuable in that role. I felt like a Rolex being used as a paperweight. Pretty to look at, functional as a paperweight, but ultimately the clock ticked for no purpose and lost the ability to keep accurate time from neglect.
I truly thought I was alone. I was convinced I was the last woman in America to draw the short stick on workplace sexism. I wasn’t being groped, so manadated HR training told me it wasn’t sexual harassment. Nonetheless, the intent of the language I heard all the time told me I didn’t belong. Things like starting a meeting with “welcome gentlemen…,” was to make me know that I was different, and I didn’t belong. Maybe I had found a wormhole that took me from 2009 to back before the days of Gloria Steinem. I felt I was the only one faced with this issue because no one was talking about it. In college when professional engineers were asked if they were treated differently in the workplace for being female, the speakers would say that they picked a great team, and everyone was awesome, and don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. No one talked about the side that you could be transferred to a team you never interviewed with, and you could try to follow your dreams but be knocked down daily for something you didn’t control (your gender). While I agree with encouraging everyone to follow their dreams, I felt unprepared to deal with gender bias in the workplace, because I didn’t know it still existed. I didn’t even have the words to label my experience as “gender bias” or “workplace sexism” until after diving into the internet to search out similar stories to mine. My research into my chosen profession was like training to be a marathon runner, but showing up on race day the event was actually bowling.
It wasn’t just my manager, it was the culture that was slowing chipping away at my spirit. When I unjammed a printer, a male coworker gave me an unwelcomed hug and let the words “guess it just needed a woman’s touch” drip into my ears.
A director decided to boost morale with giving out “attaboys” (translation: “that a boy” followed by a pat on the back) at the beginning of the weekly meeting. Somehow all the accolades went to men. There weren’t many women at the table to start with. When the director wanted to thank his female administrative assistant, he just sent her an email. Included in the email was an explanation that he didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable giving her an “attaboy” since she wasn’t a boy. Therefore, since she wasn’t a “boy” she couldn’t earn the sacred accolade and would have to settle for her work being recognized in the privacy of email. Her and I laughed this one off over lunch one day because it was either that or cry about it, and I wasn’t wearing long sleeves.
This was the first time I didn’t feel alone. She spouted off her choice words for her boss, one of which was “stupid”. What the manager had done to try to make female employees look inferior made him the stupid one, not us. I began constructing empowering monologues involving me walking into my manager’s office and explaining I was not going to order one more cookie tray and that I was going to hold his blackberry hostage until I got a real technical assignment. I approached my manager this time not to “ask” for a technical assignment but to demand one by saying, “what do you need to do to give me an assignment that will enhance my engineering career?” He laughed and explained, “oh no no, that would mean one of my guys would be organizing lunches and taking notes.” Apparently it was ridiculous to imagine a man taking notes and organizing lunches, but it was okay to waste my technical talent on the tasks. I had my answer, things were not going to change if I stayed.
I decided to pick myself up, leave the company, and do one more important thing. I used the language that was intended to destroy me to rebuild myself. I started with talking to friends and family, and most responded in disbelief and encouraged me to just move on. Part of me wished I could just put this chapter behind me and move on.
By 2014, I thought I was done with workplace sexism and no one took me seriously anyway, when finally a friend reached out with concerns of her own. My excitement to talk, actually talk on the phone, to a close college friend let me know I actually wasn’t alone. The cracking in her voice sent me back to when my own voice choked during the summer I cried too many times in the work bathroom. One of her construction customers asked her manager to replace her on a project and put “a real engineer, you know a man” into her role. According to the Society of Women Engineers, about 10% of working engineers are female in America. Worse, this number has been relatively unchanged since 1997. Given the statistics, it would have been easy to find a male engineer to fill my friend’s role. My friend wondered what she had done wrong, and was digging through emails to see if she could find a technical mistake. The only “mistake” she found was that she reported to her customer that his construction crew was not following through on her work orders. The customer knew his crew wouldn’t take direction from a woman and figured it was easier to change the engineer than to educate his crew.
Through her hurt, she asked me how I dealt with my issue. With a long sigh said I took the coward’s way out and left the company. She reminded me of the story I told her and that I didn’t leave that easily, and that I had conversations with my manager. Thankfully, a good friend will see your courage when you can’t see it yourself. What she wanted to know was how I got through those tough conversations without melting. At this point in our call, we were both sharing the bond of two people hurt, struggling for words, and openly crying like no one cared. She knew she could cry in front of me, but feared crying in front of her boss. This put me back in my previous manager’s office, where I wanted to slam my aircraft design textbook on his desk and make him kiss my college diploma (and take a photo for social media of course). But none of that happened. Instead, I cried, which wasn’t his language, and didn’t help my case. I had let my anger lead to hurt. What I needed to learn to do was to stop at anger and deflect the aggression back onto the aggressor. It was his ignorance, not mine, that caused the situation anyways.
For me, the slide from anger to hurt is short and quick, so I developed a go-to phrase. While I was working at that spirit crushing job, I would doodle on my notepad “not cool” what seemed to be a thousand times. This phrase was so natural and useful to me. Say a roommate leaves an empty roll of toilet paper and doesn’t replace it, not cool. Or maybe a date comments how you’d look really hot if you just worked out more, not cool. Workplace sexism comes to life with words, so I figured I could also fall back on language to suffocate these biases. My words had to be quick and natural so that I could easily get it off my tongue with confidence. I fell back on my trusted “not cool” when there was social behavior I want to call out. I’ve talked to others who use phrases like “check yourself,” “ouch,” “oh no you didn’t,” or “come again?” My friends and I have joked that we could throw it back to 90’s style Full House Stephanie Tanner and exclaim “how rude”.
I helped my friend, whose customer was requesting her replacement due to her gender, to develop her own go to phrase. I gave her the example phrases, and we tried them on, like we were trying on clothes at a store. I’d say something horribly sexist and then she’d test out a phrase. Sometimes a different phrase would jump out than the one she intended. It was up to her how many phrases to try out, and sometimes we went back to a previously tried phrase. Eventually she developed “oh, is that true?”
Once I had my phrase, it allowed me to set boundaries and deflect gender biased comments. Despite changing companies, I still had plenty of opportunities to deflect workplace sexism and use “not cool.” I sat at the meeting table and introduced myself to the room of men and explained that my manager had sent me on his behalf. I was briefed, and ready to make decisions based on what they would present. When I asked a program manager a question, he let out an exasperated sigh and said “uh, just mind yourself and your pretty hair while us big boys do the heavy lifting.” Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner for things people shouldn’t say at work! I leaned in, made eye contact and delivered a very direct “not cool.” The room fell silent. The program manager quickly stumbled over an “um, well, I didn’t mean, you know…joking?” Suddenly no one thought it was a joke. I had deflected the comment that was designed to leave me powerless into leaving him powerless.
He called me six times that afternoon apologizing. He had thought about if he had said that to his wife, how hurt she’d be. I didn’t say a word, which is probably why he kept calling. Intentionally choosing to not use language allowed the aggressor to have a spinning internal dialog in the void of spoken words. After all, who is harder on you than yourself? I didn’t mention the sexist comment to my manager when I debriefed him on the meeting. The program manager called to apologize to my manager too, which prompted my manager to ask me what happened and why I didn’t tell him. I didn’t want to waste my manager’s time because I had swiftly and directly dealt with the issue. Also, the meeting wasn’t about the comment, and I didn’t want to give power to the comment by giving it more of my time. My manager ensured me he had my back, which I knew he did, and said he hoped his kids would learn to stand up to bullies too.
It’s not always about standing up only for yourself. Having a deflection phrase allows you to stand up when someone else is in the crosshairs too. Offsite trips were notorious for shenanigans. When you send a group of people away from their families for weeks at a time, behavior changes. No one is rushing home to have dinner with their kids, and people who rely on their significant others to say “hun, that’s enough beer for tonight” don’t have that restraint in place. I was part of an offsite trip where, you guessed it, I was the only female, and a cartoon was posted in the workspace poking fun at a co-worker, let’s call him Jerry, who was also part of the expedition. Despite the fact that Jerry wasn’t initially hurt, he grew tired of references to the cartoon and team members began to watch what they said and did in fear of being the next target. Now we’re all offsite, tired from long work hours, and fearful of social humiliation. I didn’t have the clout to say “not cool” to this group and be heard, so I recruited someone who did. At my request, the site manager took down the cartoon, and at the daily brief said that he didn’t know who made the cartoon but bullying behavior verbally or on paper will not be accepted. The team was working with really dangerous machinery, and we all needed to be able to trust one another.
A go-to phrase isn’t a cure all for confronting all unwelcomed behavior. There are times when sexist behavior is so ingrained it can be changed by a delicate correction. In an interview, my female friend was asked a series of questions so quickly that she couldn’t get more than a word out for each (and they were not yes or no questions). At the end, the interviewer asked her if she had any questions and she in turn asked him why he asked so many questions so rapidly. He said he wanted to see if he could make her cry. As she sat there in disbelief, she muttered her go to catchphrase “really?!” coupled with a sharp look that both expresses confusion and harsh judgement. This prompted him to explain that he wasn’t going to hire “a woman who cries all the time”. This hadn’t been a problem in the past for him, as he didn’t have women working for him, but he explained his big fear of tears. The hiring manager saw no problem with his sexist comment. I don’t mind working with people who when they are called out for stepping on toes change their behavior, but not everyone sees the errors or is willing to implement corrections. There are people who are unwilling to change and empathize with a different point of view. They have every right to dig their heels into their stubborn ways, but we have every right to not deal with them.
When I look back at my time working for and with these different characters, there really weren’t many negative times. I can’t control what people say or how they will react. What I can control is my actions in standing up for myself, which builds my self-confidence, which makes it easier to stand up, and so on. By using a quick deflection phrase, it pauses the situation, and allows people to examine what happened. It won’t work with everyone, but even if it doesn’t work, you will feel better than if you had said nothing at all.
I often ask myself if choosing a career in engineering was worth the hassle of workplace sexism. I love getting to solve technical problems, so it was a great career choice for me. The only thing I would change would be to have been better prepared for facing sly and cutting comments at work. I’m not only calling out accidental chauvinists to protect myself, but to give future generations of female engineers the respect they deserve.
Workplace sexism has become more subtle because human resource groups have to address sexual harassment, workplace touching, and other blatant behaviors. The intention of workplace sexism, to cut down women and show male dominance, hasn’t changed. It’s evolved to depend on language. I no longer worry about wearing long sleeves to wipe my tears, because I’ve grown my self-confidence which I express verbally. I was once drowning in a well of hurtful language. Now I use language to raise the water level to escape.
KATE VAN DELLEN holds degrees in Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Management and has worked with business aviation, military cargo aircraft, helicopters, missile defense,and unmanned aviation. She is the founder and president of New Trees Education, which addresses supplemental science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and advocating for gender equality. She holds awards from NASA and the Society of Women Engineers. You can follow her blog on the Huffington Post.